Student Team Wins USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge

Highlight was born when the team took part in last fall’s challenge to develop low-cost, technology-driven solutions to combat the Ebola crisis. Watch the video to find out how.
—Video by Jane Nisselson

A team of third-year students—Jason Kang (Biomedical Engineering), Katherine Jin (Computer Science and Biology, Columbia College), and Kevin Tyan (Biology, Columbia College)—has won the USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge with their solution, Highlight, a powdered additive for bleach solutions that improves decontamination of infectious diseases. Their team is one of 12 selected from more than 1,500 applicants who will receive support from USAID and undergo intensive testing to ensure readiness for production and field deployment of their product. Highlight’s win comes on the heels of the Fire Department of the City of New York’s decision in December to incorporate Highlight into its HazMat unit decontamination protocol.

“This has been such a long journey since October -- it's been very tough but it’s also been incredibly rewarding,” says Kang. “I can't even begin to count the number of times we met up at night and on weekends testing all the different iterations of our formula, calling up suppliers, writing and submitting proposals, making trips up to the medical campus, and so on. We are really excited and proud to be chosen by USAID to continue our work!”

Highlight was born when the team took part in last fall’s Ebola Design Challenge sponsored by the Engineering School and the Mailman School of Public Health to develop low-cost, technology-driven solutions to meet the urgent challenges posed by the Ebola crisis. The goal of the rapid-fire design challenge was to bring together students and faculty across Columbia and across disciplines to come up with solutions to better protect the many healthcare workers who are at high risk for infection.

Kang, Jin, and Tyan pushed through their classes, homework, tests, and papers, while spending hundreds of hours on their project, refining Highlight, and figuring out how to produce and market it. They quickly formed a company, Kinnos Inc., with advisors, including Columbia Engineering Dean Mary C. Boyce; Samuel Sia, associate professor in biomedical engineering; Aaron Kyle, lecturer in biomedical engineering; and Ian Lipkin, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at Mailman and Director, Center for Infection & Immunity.

Founders of Kinnos Inc., from left to right: Kevin Tyan, Jason Kang, Katherine Jin
—Photo Courtesy of Katherine Jin

The team focused in on personnel decontamination. Highlight colorizes the bleach solution and modifies the solution’s liquid properties to provide visualization of sprayed regions, improve coverage and adherence to all surfaces, and increase antiviral potency. It can be added directly to bleach solutions currently used in the field and is compatible with standard issue contractor sprayers. “It’s extremely versatile and highly effective, and can be used to decontaminate any infectious disease, not just Ebola,” Jin notes.

While bleach is the most commonly used disinfectant for surfaces contaminated with the Ebola virus, it is transparent and forms droplets when sprayed on water-proof surfaces, like personal protective equipment suits. “So it’s really difficult to ensure complete topical coverage with bleach during decontamination, and that can leave health care workers susceptible to infection,” Tyan explains. Highlight improves the effectiveness of bleach mist decontamination and ensures the safety of health care workers, enabling them to visualize with color exactly what has or has not been decontaminated.

During the Ebola Design Challenge, which spanned just a few weeks, the students often had to choose between going to class and making their presentations, or going out on the weekend versus staying in to test a new reagent. Says Kang, “Back in November, I decided not to study for my organic chemistry midterm and go to Mt. Sinai Hospital to demo Highlight in front of the FDNY. I got absolutely destroyed on the test, but the FDNY ended up incorporating Highlight into their decontamination protocol, so it was worth it!”

—by Holly Evarts

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